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Get Your Streak On

Missy Elliott, skirting the issue
Courtesy of Atlantic Records
Missy Elliott
The Cookbook
Goldmind/Atlantic

 

Missy Elliott is hip hop's most substantial insubstantial VIP. To bring up a hoary but wholly applicable truism, if she were a man and had released the same level of high-quality, medium-busting work, hip-hop heads would reflexively bow in respect at the mention of her name. Those who blast her meaningless / nonsensical / disposable lyrics to justify their dismissal of her artistry miss the bigger picture in which the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. She's never been the rapper you turn to for deep sociopolitical analysis but she's only wack to those heads who've deemed laughter a sign of weakness or inauthenticity, to those Negroes who've surrendered the joy of dance to every other crayon in the box 'cause real niggas don't dance. Missy's memory is longer than that, though. She remembers when the baddest dude on the block also rocked Michael Jackson and could (and would) dance his ass off. Her last few albums, Under Construction, the slept on This Is Not a Test!, and now The Cookbook are all odes to her and hip hop's less complicated youths.

"Lose Control," Cookbook's first single, owes a huge chunk of its appeal to its foundational sample, lifted from Cybotron's "Clear." But as with the rest of the album, what really makes this retro-electro inflected party track click is the force of Missy's personality. Here, she winds autobio shout-outs ("I got a cute face/Chubby waist/Thick legs/In shape...") with a just-try-to-resist call to the dance floor. There's a lot going on: Fat Man Scoop's barked hype-man exhortations; Ciara's multitracked crooning; handclaps; sliding beds of beats that roll over and then crash right through each other; music dropouts and fade-ins. But Missy sings, flows, and keeps b-girl cool in the eye of it all. And those much-maligned lyrics, falling along admittedly rudimentary rhyme schemes, suck you in with their breezy familiarity. They burn in your memory bank the moment you hear them.

"Control" is the quintessential summer feel-good tune, with countless layers of humor unfolding throughout. Missy, who produced the track, sets up Ciara's big moment with the words, "She'll sing on a cappella." The lightweight vocalist follows through with the line, "Boy, the music makes me lose control," in what amounts to a droll punch line: Can vocals so heavily and pointedly overproduced even qualify for the term a cappella?

Like its two predecessors, Cookbook is drenched in nostalgia, endlessly name dropping hip-hop icons, quoting and paraphrasing classic rap lines, bringing in Grand Puba, Mary J. Blige, and Slick Rick for cameos, and bottling old-school vibes with soda factory precision. On "Lose Control," Missy refers to herself as a "beat scholar" and her studiousness shows through on club-bangers like "Party Time," and "We Run This." The latter is balanced on a sample from "Apache," which should make you cry "Foul!" but it's so well tweaked that you just have to give in to it. On the shape-shifting "Irresistible Delicious," Missy's buttery sung vocals are a throwback to late-'70s/early-'80s R&B, while Slick Rick shows up not only in person, but also in Missy's raps, both in the nods she gives him in her own lyrics and in her flow, modified to mimic his. The carefully orchestrated chaos of the Rich Harrison-produced "Can't Stop" is clearly from the same boards that birthed J-Lo's "Get Right" and Amerie's "One Thing," but it also evokes Missy's own bossa nova inflected "Scream," from Under Construction. And though filled with samples, "Can't Stop" taps into the hunger for the energy of real bands and live instruments. Missy sprints over it all like Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

The album's strength is that it hops across genre and sub-genre styles and aesthetic fences with ease, from party raps to silky, if lyrically profane, R&B ("Meltdown," "Teary Eyed," "Remember Me," "4 My Man") to Southern-accented rap ("Click Clack") to dancehall ("Bad Man," featuring Vybez Cartel and M.I.A.). Not all of it works (the CD is about four tracks too long), but most of it does. Rich Harrison, Timbaland, Craig. X Brockman, the Neptunes, Qur'an, Scott Storc, and Shondrae are among the slew of producers on the album, but Missy's the glue holding it all together, making it seem like an organic tapestry. She irradiates all she comes in contact with, showing allegiance less to region or specific flavor than to whatever moves her.

A long time ago, hip hop fucked R&B doggy and a lot of the half-breeds that resulted are poster children for Planned Parenthood. But Missy Elliott, a defiantly untragic musical mulatta who has always been a critics' darling even when fans weren't feeling her, gets hated on by so many heads because she's so clearly the child of her two parents. She refuses to check one identity box and mofos be mad about her identity flexibility and fluidity, about the way she uses and flaunts her mixed-genre heritage as a springboard to explore endless musical possibilities. (And visual ones, as well. Her ghetto fabulous/avant-garde/hood-rat video work blasts her well past Michael and Madonna and situates her just below below Björk.) She works with nothing more than the desire to feel good as her inspiration.

Students of hip hop can trace Missy's lineage back to another wildly talented, chubby, dark-skinned sister with roots in both rap and R&B. A former member of early femme rap trio Sequence, one-third of underrated early-'90s R&B group Vertical Hold, undersung midwife to neo-soul, and talented singer/songwriter/producer in her own right, Angie Stone is the Zelig of modern black music. And like many trailblazers, she's not the one to reap the benefits of the template she forged. In Missy Elliott, she has a more than worthy heir.

One of the most interesting things about Missy is her paradoxical asexual hypersexuality. There's a tongue-in-cheek quality to her public sexuality which allows her the freedom to endlessly moan about magic sticks, sucking dick, and being made so wet by a guy that, "[he] make my little pussy quiver," and yet never be stamped with the letter H[o]. In large part that's because no one for a minute believes that Missy is a dick junkie anymore than they'd believe Liberace feenin' for punnany. There's a tangled paradox at work, a mix of hiding in plain sight and simply hiding. Her transparently over-the-top, horndog-hetero poses let her Harlem shake off the Vandrossian pathos that made even Luther's upbeat songs shiver with sadness. The court jester throws the most graphic first-person-narrative shit imaginable into the public square, and then points and laughs as you presume to know anything about her.


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